Mary Mattingly in Conversation with Philadelphia Parks & Rec’s Barry Bessler

During a PPEHLab at WetLand open house at the Walnut Street dock on the Schuylkill River, WetLand’s creator, Mary Mattingly, sat down to talk with the Chief of Staff of Philadelphia’s Parks & Recreation, Barry Bessler. They talk about PPEH’s collaborations with Parks educational programs and how this floating mobile platform contrasts to the more fixed nature of park spaces.

Parks manages the public dock where we tied up and hosted hundreds of passers-by on the nearby Schuylkill River Trail. The project had gotten lost for a while in a tangle of regulatory authorities, and we are grateful to Parks for helping get it sorted out.

In Conversation: Mary Mattingly and Barry Bessler

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MM: It’s nice to meet you in person.

BB: Thank you.

MM: Thank you for making this happen.

BB: It’s our pleasure. We’re always open to interesting and different projects that take place on our property and we’re very proud of the fact that we have so many acres that we’re responsible for in the city of Philadelphia—a full fifteen percent of the land area in Philadelphia is under the control of the Parks and Recreation Department. We’re always looking for unique and different things to attract the people to our spaces and this Penn/WetLand project certainly is one of those.

MM: That’s great. I am always amazed by the work that you guys are doing, as far as turning gray spaces to green spaces. Philadelphia is so far ahead of so many other cities in the United States.

BB: Especially in the past ten years. We have made great advances in our efforts to green the city through the Green 2015 project.

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Green 2015 launched in 2010. The plan committed the City to transform 500 acres of vacant lands into park space.

It’s not only taking spaces that were formerly not green and making them green, but making them more user friendly. There have been extensive tree planting efforts throughout the city. All of those kinds of things fit in with the environmental and urban ecology initiatives of our department. For so long, our department has just been thought of as the folks who operate the gyms, hand out basketballs, care for the park areas, and run special events. Certainly those are huge components of what we do, but we have an ever-increasing focus on the urban environment and sustainable initiatives; this fits right in with that.

MM: What is next for you guys in that process?

BB: We have a lot of education programs that take place in different areas throughout the city. This is particularly unique because it’s an interactive situation that joins the water—the river—with the land. If we can look at this as a partnership with Penn, then it’s a real feather in our cap. Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 11.12.25 AMHopefully, next spring we can involve some kids from our environmental education programs when you begin developing the floating gardens [and all of the other things that make this project so unique and so special]. That would be a great accomplishment.

MM: That’s really exciting for us, too.


BB: I know that WetLand is going into dry dock in a few weeks. Is there restoration that will take place during the winter? How has it fared so far? It was on the Delaware River last year, right?

MM: It was. It went from the Delaware River pretty much straight to dry dock. It fared pretty well. We did some upkeep before … we weren’t sure if this semester would be our launching semester, or if it would be next semester. For next semester, we have a few really great proposals for floating garden plans; that’s going to be our focus over the winter, so we can have a great floating garden system in the spring.

BB: And that all fits in with the artistic vision for this project?

MM: It’s really collaborative, because a lot of artists are coming on and working— Penn students will be as well. It’s not going to be just one artist’s plan. It’s almost like a process of design charrette for the gardens at this stage. So we’ll get people together and we’ll have certain criteria to meet.

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l. Artist Collective We the Weeds, r. Penn Theatre Arts student directors devise performances in the PPEHLab at WetLand.

BB: That’s what makes this so interesting. So many of the things that we do—design-wise or construction-wise—they’re all static spaces (parks, playgrounds, etc.), but the fact that this is portable and has this huge interactive component to it…

MM: It’s really interesting; I hadn’t really thought of that as a significant difference, but it makes all the world of difference as far a permitting goes… we need different permits to go to different places with WetLand. When you have a static space, you know exactly step-by-step what needs to happen; this is a little bit unclear.

BB: Well, it is… and unfortunately being on the water creates many different authority issues. It’s not only our authority because you’re tying off to our dock, but you have the coast guard and the Pennsylvania Fish and Bird Commission—all of the various entities that have some level of jurisdiction in this space and on the water. It needs to be a collaborative effort(?) so that everyone is aware… (trails off).

MM: Thank you for coming.

BB: Sure. It’s very interesting and I hope the project attracts a lot of visitors—it’s definitely worthwhile to check out!

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Tied up at the Walnut Street dock on the Schuylkill River, fall 2015.


Mary Mattingly is a Brooklyn-based artist who creates sculptural ecosystems in urban spaces. She is the creator of the WetLand project and is the 2015–16 Artist-in-Residence with the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities.

Barry Bessler is Chief of Staff at Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation.



Guest Post: Carolyn Fornoff reflects on engaging publics

Carolyn Fornoff is the Coordinator of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH). A field that is rapidly institutionalizing, EnvHum aims to value and promote work that engages both academic and non-academic audiences. In this post, Carolyn reflects on how she and other PPEH Fellows and Friends, in her words, “took the notion of public engagement to entirely new terrain.”  


Patricia Kim and Carolyn Fornoff taking a break from pulling in passersby on the Schuylkill River Trail during the pilot project’s first open house, October 17, 2015.

In academia we often come back to the question of how to engage a broader public with scholarly work. Rather than envision the university as an ‘ivory tower’ from which knowledge ‘trickles down’ to the public, the aim is to rethink how in the 21st century—with its vast array of new platforms for communication—we might bring academics into dialogue with activists, artists, and community groups, all of whom are invested in tackling similar problems (from different angles) so that we might learn from each other. But what does it mean to really engage the public? One of the goals of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH) is to create an academic culture that is invested not just in rigorous scholarship about the environment, but also in public scholarship. That is, to craft a program whose events will interest a wide cross-section of scholars from different disciplines, as well as captivate a broader audience.

To this end, the first symposium of the academic year, Faith & Environmentalism, part of the Program’s ongoing Curriculum for the New Normal, was timed to coincide with the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia (and co-sponsored by the Collegium Institute for Catholic Thought & Culture) to increase attendance by visiting Catholics. Consequently, not only did the presenters represent a wide array of takes on faith and nature across time and space—ranging, for example, from Classics prof Cam Grey’s presentation on pagan interpretation of environmental crisis to Rabbi Ilana Schachter’s discussion of nature in the Old Testimony—but the audience itself included students, scholars and practitioners of faith. This intersection of attendees brought lively debate to the Q&A roundtable, as well as to conversations following the official program.

After giving my own talk on liberation theology, poetry and environmentalism, I was approached by a Peruvian priest who was in Philadelphia for the papal visit.



Carolyn Fornoff speaks at the PPEH Symposium on Faith and Environmentalism. Poet Ernesto Cardenal is shown here kneeling in the background slide.

We began to talk about his experience with liberation theology in Peru, and dove into the merits of liberation theology versus theology of the people, and how these branches think differently about the overlapping articulation of class and environmental violence. What was most powerful about this conversation was how it brought my research’s investment in historical and literary analysis into conversation with concrete contemporary relevance. It pushed my frame of reference beyond the text and into dialogue with public discourse and religious practice.

Whereas the symposium on Faith & Environmentalism brought together a public that was already invested in these debates, PPEH’s first open house for WetLand on the Schuylkill trail took the notion of public engagement to entirely new terrain. How to engage a public that was not purposefully intending to attend an event about the environmental humanities? WetLand, an art installation by PPEH artist-in-residence Mary Mattingly, is both a houseboat and an experiment in sustainable living. After some difficult negotiations with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, we were able to dock WetLand under the Walnut Street Bridge for two weekends in October.



With Philadelphia’s City Hall in the background, Carolyn Fornoff and I have nothing but smiles after long negotiations to obtain permission to use the City’s Park and Recreation dock under the Walnut Street Bridge over the Schuylkill River in Center City.




On Saturday, October 17th from 11-6, we set up an information table alongside the path of the Schuylkill River Trail and began our efforts to get passersby to come aboard and explore the boat. The Schuylkill River Trail is a path that follows the bank of the Schuylkill River for a distance of 23 miles. Every weekend, people walk, bike, and run along the path for exercise, to enjoy the autumn sun, or to get over to 30th Street train station. After having set up our WetLand information table adjacent to the trail, we quickly realized that few people were stopping to visit with us—likely out of the suspicion that we were trying to sell something. But the striking visual of WetLand, with its multi-colored exterior made from recycled materials, was catching the eyes of many as they jogged past. Soon, we modified our strategy and began to call out to bikers or runners as they sped by, “Come check out our boat!” Surprisingly, about one out of every three people would slow their pace and take a break from their workout to hop aboard. Children, dogs, and adults alike delighted in stepping out onto the Schuylkill River, exploring the houseboat refashioned into a lab of sustainability and art installation, a glimpse of how we might take refuge from the world, but can never truly escape it.

The open house at WetLand was public engagement at its most expansive. Philadelphians of all stripes who might not normally attend a university event or be interested in talking about the environment stepped onto the floating vessel and told us about what they think about climate change and how it is affecting (or not) their lives.


Some of our favorite visitors to WetLand at our first open house.

The curiosity and willingness to experience something new on the part of the public that came aboard WetLand points to the possibilities that an artist-in-residence brings to Penn and to scholars of the environmental humanities at large. Public input pushes us to think about the intersection of environment and culture in concrete, everyday encounters, whether it is with the bodies of water that run through our city, or the different ways in which people walk alongside or travel over them.

Guest Post: Kate Farquhar hosts an open house on WetLand

On October 25th, Kate Farquhar hosted the second of two open houses on WetLand while we were docked at the Walnut Street Bridge on the Schuylkill River in Center City Philadelphia. She reflects on it in this guest  post:

Taking stock of the WetLand openhouse a month ago, our dockside conversations and experiments now seem inextricably interwoven with this year’s final season. The unseasonably warm, breezy day debuted collaborative tests among friends and introductory encounters with strangers.

Danielle Toronyi of Peak Discharge – an environmental noise group – gauged underwater sounds from the Schuylkill’s tidal banks. Local horticulturists Kylin Metler and Robin Rick hosted a plant clinic to distinguish plant specimens and answer questions brought from passersby. Artist Jacob Rivkin and I made an instructional video showing how to concoct seed bombs, to better broadcast tips for spreading native plants.

<p><a href=”″>How To Make Seed Bombs</a> from <a href=”″>Jacob Rivkin</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

In my work as a landscape architect and teacher, I constantly search for words to help me contextualize my actions as participatory within a larger world. Standing out from my memories of our friendly talks in the warm air, the words gauge, distinguish and broadcast resound.

Defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (my favorite source for storied vocabulary lineages), but deployed in sentences I’ve composed as follows:

GAUGE:  the measurement of the depth of a liquid content, to ascertain the capacity or content of (a cask or similar vessel)… To render conformable to a given standard of measurement or dimensions; also to gauge up, to set bounds to, to limit

Gauging is the method by which tides were measured before microwave technology and acoustics – it’s also an informal method of evaluating fluid commodities.

DISTINGUISH: to perceive distinctly or clearly (by sight, hearing, or other bodily sense); to ‘make out’ by looking, listening, etc.; to recognize… To mark…  to be a characteristic of; to characterize… honour with special attention

With the use of all five senses, a practiced observer can distinguish organisms as characters distinct from their contexts.

BROADCAST: to scatter (seed, etc.) abroad with the hand… To disseminate (a message, news… performance…) from a … transmitting station to listeners and viewers; said also of a speaker or performer

Broadcasting the year’s fruit can mean throwing seeds by hand or reaching out to an audience – or – in our case – both.

Posing the larger context for Danielle’s exercise, I’ve learned that this October was the warmest on record for our region, implying a cascade of small and large local (but globally-connected) consequences including rising tides. Prefiguring Kylin and Robin’s clinic, definitive precedents were set by the plant intelligence researchers with this year’s publication Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence. Describing plant communities’ interconnected intelligence networks as more sophisticated than the internet, its authors reverse the notion that plants are specimens to be entered in a catalog. Plants are presumed to have their own drives. Grounding my workshop with Jacob, this fall yielded an extravagant harvest of fruit, nuts and berries to our region – constituting a mast year, with beneficial repercussions for wildlife that rely on those crops. Each theme I’ve called out above refers to modes of thought that transcend the science vs. humanities duality that pervades much of our culture. Relatedly, they reference pre-modern, non-specialized ways of doing things that still matter.

Guest Post: UPenn Theatre Arts on WetLand

By Amanda Shur

On a beautiful Tuesday morning in October, one University of Pennsylvania Theatre Arts class made the trek down to the Schuykill River to board a boat.  It was an unusual and unprecedented class for Dr. Marcia Ferguson’s Introduction to Directing class, an exercise in eco-theatre.  No one was really sure what to expect going into the class, nor was it possible for any of us to fully grasp what the WetLand project even was before boarding the installation currently docked in the Schuykill.  At the boat, Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Sarah Standing of CUNY were waiting for us.  As we boarded the boat, we were all somewhat surprised by the comparison between the inside and the outside of the structure.  On the inside, WetLand looked like any normal boat, complete with electricity from the solar panels–a stark contrast to the dismal appearance of a sinking house from the outside.


Students in Dr. Marcia Ferguson’s class discuss eco-theatre on WetLand with PPEH guest, Dr. Sarah Standing. Photo credit: Brooke Sietinson/Penn Arts & Culture. 

For the photo album of the workshop on WetLand and the ensuing roundtable on Avant Garde Theater & Climate Change click here. And, PPEH Fellow Ruben Post writes about the roundtable here.

As the cars zooming by on 676 subtly wavered in the background as the boat rocked above the light waves, Dr. Standing began a discussion on what eco-theatre is.  We discussed what we personally felt were main environmental concerns, occasionally interrupted by the slight bump of the boat against the dock.  We came to the understanding that eco-theatre can be any form of theatre ranging from realism to the absurd, and not necessarily site-specific, but unified by a focus on environmental issues.  As the class delved into a discussion about our personal ecological concerns, the conversation grew serious, with some students mentioning how overwhelming and emotional these topics can be.  This, Dr. Standing explains, is exactly why we have eco-theatre: to come to terms with these overwhelming feelings and emotions, and convey important messages about the state of our environment.

From there, the class split into groups of three to devise pieces in 10-minute rehearsals, inspired by the concerns we’d just raised and the environment of the boat.  The variety in the scenes produced was incredible: from abstract tableaux about rising water levels to full-blown melodrama scenes about air pollution, we demonstrated that eco-theatre can be nearly anything its creators want.  Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Standing even pressed students to perhaps incorporate song into their pieces.  Eco-theatre, we learned through practice, was not the abstract and distant theatre we’d imagined, but could be completely accessible realism.

As a train horn screeched across the river, we came to a close discussing the installation itself.  It premiered in 2014 at the Fringe Arts Festival, with artist Mary Mattingly actually living on the boat for three to four weeks.  I began to notice for the first time my surroundings–the microwave in the corner, the outlets all around deriving their power from the solar panels on the roof of the boat.  I finally came to terms with the project.  While a sinking house on the outside, the WetLand project was a fully functioning house boat on the inside–a message both inside and out about our possible future should water levels continue to rise, and an experimental production of eco-theatre.

PPEHLab is OPEN and workers are working, drinkers are drinking

During the first of three open houses in this pilot phase, visitors toured the lab and artists and such got to work. For an event that came together super fast, after we got last-minute permission to use the city dock (see previous post), a whole lotta work got done that afternoon.

It’s always amazing to witness the PPEH Fellows in action: 22299479571_b41cf2d38e_k

Patricia Kim and Brooke Stanley, and Program Assistant, Carolyn Fornoff, conjured siren songs and lured bikers off the straight and narrow Schuylkill Bank path onto WetLand; Shams Haidari, Ayla Fudala,and Kasey Toomey explained the project once they arrived on board (see previous post).

But that was not all, no, that was not all.

On shore, visitors were invited to consider their “Philly Climate Story,” a new art-advocacy project by the brilliant and beautifully bespectacled Joey Hartmann-Dow. (The project is back at open house 2 on 10/25, so you can add your story, or visit the website.)

And, artist collective We the Weeds, Zya Levy and Caitlin Pomerantz, were there to teach about four sister plants, three native and one non-: ambrosia artemisiifolia (AKA Roman wormwood, common ragweed), artmesia vulgaris (AKA Common wormwood, mugwort), artemesia annua (AKA Sweet wormwood, sweet Annie), and artemesia absinthum (AKA Green ginger, wormwood).

Among their various usages–as antihistamines (ragweed!?! are you as surprised as I was?), as dream aid, against malaria–the making of absinthe (with wormwood) is likely the most famous. We did not drink absinthe, but We the Weeds did mix up some tasty refreshments from their very own artemesial bitters. Tasty. Carolyn and I both had two.22088540129_a962cf6b21_k(1)

‘A House that Collapsed onto Itself’

Program Fellows were busy in the PPEHLab at WetLand open house on Saturday afternoon, 10/17. They welcomed people on board and helped passersby, joggers, and bikers find the gangway to the public dock, otherwise kept locked. (We soon realized showing visitors to the “gangplank” was making them nervous.)

On the boat, Fellows gave tours of the lab, talked with people at length, and helped visitors record their names in the log.

22102308849_9b4eb94644_kLook who was there! Barry Bessler (“Dr. No,” see previous post) and his wife, Carol, with Penn’s Director of Sustainability, the irrepressible Dan Garofalo for the photobomb. #Welcomeaboard. On board, Barry sat down to talk with WetLand’s creator, artist Mary Mattingly,  about City Parks and Philadelphia’s efforts to open them up to everybody. We’ll cut the footage down for the second of our doc shorts about the project.

Undergraduate fellow Shams Haidari (C’16) is a Political Science and History double major, interested in Middle Eastern governance, energy production, and energy trade as well as Arabic poetry. She guided visitors skillfully through the lab. She had this to say:

Mary Mattingly’s WetLand Project docked alongside the Walnut Street Bridge this past Saturday. Part-home, part-boat, and part-studio, WetLand boasts a bathroom—complete with bathtub, toilet, and sink—two bedrooms, a living room, and kitchenette. Solar panels attached to the roof—now coated in wood beams—provide electricity, and a rainwater filtration system ensures a supply of clean water. However, one attendee at Saturday’s open house provided a more succinct description, commenting that WetLand looks like “a house that collapsed on itself.”

It’s an accurate statement—partly because it describes the first thought that ran through my mind when I spotted it from the bridge on 24th and Chestnut, but mainly because it suits the project’s purpose. An example of the intersection between sustainability and humanistic studies, WetLand aims to deconstruct the traditional home and to redefine the boundaries between a living space and the environment surrounding it.

Watching people walk through WetLand for an open house, I also couldn’t help but find the comparison oddly on-point. Couples, joggers, and young families took their time touring: asking how the boat runs—it doesn’t—and where the floor boards come from—a gym in Iowa. One excited child asked if he could sleepover—yes, but only for short stretches of time in the spring and summer. At the end of the day, visitors left—and WetLand moved back to its home at Bartram’s Garden.”

Urban Boating at Its Finest

Last Saturday, the PPEHLab at WetLand held the first of three open-houses this fall on the Lower Schuylkill in Philadelphia. Captain Bob Smizer met us early in the morning at Bartram’s Garden where WetLand has been docked since 10/5 when we took it out of dry dock in Westville, New Jersey, under the Walt Whitman Bridge, and had our own crossing the Delaware (see previous post) experience.

Our electrical engineer, Rand, was already on board adding more solar panels for more power. 22102162289_04f26be9c4_kHe kept working as we trawled upriver, just making it under one surprisingly low bridge and floating under several rail bridges.

Wind picked up as we moved into the more cavernous spaces of center city where all wetlands along the River have been built over, on the west side to accommodate the “Expressway” (or Distressway) and rail lines, and on the east for commercial and residential properties and more rail. It’s quite something to experience the city from the vantagepoint of the river.

As we pulled up to the dock, a big gust blew WetLand hard against the gangway. Minor damage only to report.

Yes: Permission to Dock

After ten months of discussion and a few sleepless nights, permission arrived last week allowing us to dock WetLand at the City Parks & Recreation dock along Walnut Street. (Here’s a map of the areas I’m talking about, on the Lower Schuylkill River in Phildelphia.) The PPEHLab at WetLand had since spring 15 been slated as a community partner for the Philadelphia Open Studio Tours (P.O.S.T.), a huge city-wide arts crawl, on 10/17. We got the actual permit via email the day before.

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 2.34.33 PMAfter moving at a snail’s pace for months, our discussions with one huge bureaucracy, of the city, were buttressed by critical support within a second very large bureaucracy, the university.

Many lessons in navigating the halls of power were learned. Strategic help from our good friends at Bartram’s Garden was essential.

I was so delirious by the time we got to yes, that I asked Barry Bessler, Chief of Staff of Parks &Rec, whose nickname is “Dr. No,” to play it for me one more time. You can hear it in this 3-second video. He’s a good sport, right?

Art in the Service of ?

Earlier this week, PPEH took part in a conversation at Slought Foundation about “Art in the Service of Future Generations.” And we talked with a few pretty cool guys: Veit Stratmann, Ken Lum, Amze Emmons, and Aaron Levy.

It proved an interesting counterpoint to a convo 2 months ago (August 15) at Slought that we had been involved in featuring WetLand creator, our artist in residence, Mary Mattingly. Like in that conversation, we ranged over topics about culture, art, ethics, politics, and responsibility.

Veit’s such a GOOD SPORT, and he braved canoe and kayak transport–and got pretty wet–to come aboard ‪#‎WetLand‬. With program Fellow and co-designer of Pier 68, Kasey Toomey, we talked on film about the work of artists amidst dire social-natural conditions. 12049428_10153589031734435_331069340442385785_n

We had wrapped up shooting and high-tailed it to dry ground in the midst of a huge thunder storm. We found refuge and some refreshment.

As we cut the footage for the first short in a series of documentaries of conversations in the PPEHLab, we’re thinking about collective artistic action. And, what does it mean to be in service of, rather than in service to? And most importantly, as Veit wanted to know, is WetLand in service of something: the river? the people in its watershed? And, as he repeatedly asked, how can the closed space of a boat, a closed community, open out into society? Community can often signal such a small place.

While you wait for the short doc, check out what Veit has to say about related topics over here, in the context of the devastating earthquake that hit L’Aquila:

“L’Aquila is in an unacceptable state. And this status calls for real change. It appeals to the formulation of an objective—something that I feel should be avoided in an artistic posture. The necessity of identifying a goal runs the risk of transforming anything that I might accomplish in L’Aquila into “social work,” canalizing my thinking towards a univocal “solution” to purely non-art related problems.”

Univocality is definitely not our thing. ‪#‎welcomeaboard‬.

Solar panels and a thunderstorm

I *thought* Sam was a good student, but look at him here cutting my raft loose from ‪#WetLand… Although it’s fall “break,” fellows and students in the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities got to the PPEHLab at WetLand on Friday (10.9.15): first time! It was pretty great. No one fell overboard.


But the day also reminded us that Floating WetLand will be no easy task. We couldn’t get the solar panels re-installed (or the composting toilet working) before a big t-storm hit. #‎welcomeaboard‬